“Arms and the Man” at A.C.T. Sings True as the World Slowly Reopens

As we collectively mark a full year in nation-wide reclusion, American Conservatory Theater launches A.C.T. Out Loud, a series of play readings challenging audiences to relate to centuries-old works. The event features George Bernard Shaw’s Arms and the Man, a witty comedy set at the end of the Serbo-Bulgarian War.

The play follows Bulgarian noble Raina, who falls in love with the enemy mercenary Bluntschli even though she is already engaged to a Bulgarian war hero. Shaw helps us confront change through Raina and her community as they return to an unfamiliar home.

On the first day of rehearsals for Arms and the Man, I talked with A.C.T. Artistic Director Pam MacKinnon about the theatre scene in the Bay Area, going virtual, and how this 127-year-old play is particularly relevant right now.

Esha Potharaju: A.C.T. is the biggest theatre company in the Bay Area. When you think of the Bay, the uber-rich Silicon Valley giants are the first things that come to mind. But I know the Bay is a lot more than that. It’s a culmination of culture with a history of immigration and revolution imprinted in it. As an arts company, how is A.C.T. influencing its culture scene?

Pam MacKinnon: We’re part of the largest theatre in the San Francisco Bay Area, and as such, we tend to pay artists more than any other theatre in the area. It’s very important. We’re part of an ecosystem. I don’t see us in competition with other theatres. We’re there as an employer. We’re there as a way to make sure that artists, in a very expensive region of the country, can afford to live here, that artists can afford to create, and to bring themselves to step in to doing the work that they want to do. So that’s one aspect of being big.

And also, here we are in a not just region-wide, but a universal shutdown of our art form as we know it. We’ve pivoted to the virtual realm. As a big theatre, we embraced technology really swiftly at the top of this pandemic and encouraged artists to embrace this new medium for theatre…This is an art form that’s normally all about gathering people in person to tell stories, and we just don’t have the ability to do that right now for health reasons. But it doesn’t mean we’ve shut down in any way.

Pam, you’ve said in prior interviews that you believe theatre is a core of human life. It’s how people gather, tell stories and find a sense of belonging. How is your production team planning to emulate that community-like environment virtually for this play?

Arms and the Man started rehearsals today, so that’s one moment of creating community. It’s about bringing actors around the country together with the director Colman Domingo, Christina Dare, who is helping out this amazing company of actors with some voice work, as well as a dramaturg who’s on staff, and a stage manager, and a video designer. And so that’s sort of the first slice of building a community. It’s that rehearsal room, and we’re doing it all virtually. This is a four-day exploration with the great actors of this play. Then, we’re going to edit it and create a video document of this exploration. Then we’ll put it out for ticket buyers. And we have a sliding scale for tickets, so tickets can cost as little as $5 and then sort of go on up.

We’re also making it free for educators and their students, and I see that as community building as well. I mean, I’m hopeful that educators will take us up on it, and there’s a lot of remote learning going on as well. Students of a particular class, even if they’re remote, can watch the play…and get to discuss it, and those discussions are inherently a form of community building. It’s not necessarily the same thing as a group of people gathering together as an audience in a room, but I think as long as the art…fosters conversation, that’s inherently community building. Even in a pandemic.

That’s great. I love that you’ve still managed to preserve the meaning of theatre to you, even while we’re going virtual.

Yeah, I think that’s right.

So Arms and the Man will be performed as a staged reading rather than a full production. In that limited format, what changed in the play? And how are you feeling about that?

The fun thing about Arms and the Man in particular is that it’s comedy. I’ve listened to the reading for the first time without any direction, without any work, and it is a laugh-out-loud comedy. And it just keeps on—you have these great moments. You know, it just, it gets whacky really fast. And it sort of ratchets up the tension, and you can feel that in the reading. George Bernard Shaw also wrote very specific stage directions and descriptions of what he thought the room should look like, what the costumes should [look] like. So our director Colman Domingo is going to decide which of those stage directions should be read and which are left to our imagination. So I think that will be a fun way for the audience to experience this play. You know, when you normally stage it, as you said, there’s a set that is built, normally costumes that actors wear, but this is much more basic story-telling theatre. And to have George Bernard Shaw’s elaborate descriptions read will be a different way into this play.

"Arms and the Man" Director Colman Domino.
“Arms and the Man” Director Colman Domino. COURTESY OF A.C.T.

Awesome. So having it read, rather than visually.

Right. You know, in theatre, the audience is that last element that you bring into any theatre project. Your imagination takes over, right, and I think there is something just beautiful that your imagination can fill in those gaps. And that’s what this will be.

I think it’s just so interesting how the way that people interpret art has just kind of changed during this pandemic. A lot of it is left to imagination, but we’re still doing art, and I think that’s great.

And I feel so grateful that there are actors around the country who are joining us in San Francisco virtually to work for four days together. And that just normally wouldn’t happen. We have actors from the Bay Area, actors from New York, actors from Los Angeles, all coming together for four days to tell this story.

Pam, I know you consider Edward Albee’s works as a huge shaping force in your career. He was known for writing thought-provoking and often deeply uncomfortable plays. What about his works held so much appeal to you? Are you letting that shine through your selection of Arms and the Man? I know Arms and the Man is written to be quite thought provoking as well.

I like theatre that makes you question your point of view, even question your values. And Shaw definitely does that. Shaw, like Edward Albee, has a really strong voice. You can tell a Shaw play when you hear it, if you’ve heard or seen Shaw plays, there’s usually some kind of didactic lesson. He sort of sets himself a task to point out hypocrisy or circle something political that he deems important and necessary for people to talk about. And while I think Arms and the Man has that and points out the hypocrisy of heroism or the hypocrisy of posturing that you’re in love without being in love is also just at the core, the play is just so richly drawn. The characters feel vulnerably human, as opposed to just symbols. And so I would say for that reason, yes, he and Edward Albee can be talked about in one sentence.

Late playwright Edward Albee with A.C.T. Artistic Director Pam MacKinnon at the opening of “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” in New York City in 2012.
Late playwright Edward Albee with A.C.T. Artistic Director Pam MacKinnon at the opening of “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” in New York City in 2012. PHOTO BY BRIAN HARKIN

Why did you select this play to be performed? What about it made you think, “Wow, this is really relevant right now”?

I think there are some timeless themes, [and also some that are relevant to] this moment in a global pandemic…Shaw has written a play with these soldiers returning home from war in various states of fatigue or celebration. And I feel as people start to reunite, as even classrooms and workplaces come together after being remote for so long, there’s something about this returning that feels really relevant. And also, this moment of return, when it need not be a return to what had been, should be a critique of what had been. There’s something about the return that opens up possibility to make it better or make it different. And that feels very of the now.

Wow, I love that. This honestly never even crossed my mind when I was reading up on Arms and the Man.

Yeah, it’s one thing to return from war, but I think that idea of coming back after having this harrowing and completely extraordinary experience and returning home. Well, home has changed while you were gone, and you have changed while you were away, so instead of just assuming that everything goes back to the way it was, get ready, because that’s not going to. And I feel that’s around the corner for us as a society.

As a young person, and given that I’m speaking to someone who really wants everyone to understand the importance of, and have access to theatre, I have to wonder what A.C.T. is doing to make the narrative of Arms and the Man more open to this generation?

It doesn’t need a rendition. It doesn’t need it. Colman Domingo’s first point of direction with the actors was just bring your whole selves. Certainly, the story takes place in the 1880s in Bulgaria, but he’s saying we’re American. We’re Black. We’re white. We’re Latinx. He’s saying it’s 2021. Bring yourself to the emotional and story situations. And we’ll make it sing.

Arms and the Man will be available on demand April 12–18. A watch party will kick off the play’s run on April 12 at 6 p.m. Tickets are available for purchase here.

Esha Potharaju (she/her) is an art and story lover who is passionate about enriching her community through arts involvement. In her free time, you can find Esha participating in student advocacy initiatives and overanalyzing comics and cartoons with her best friend. You can find more of her reviews and interviews on TeenTix.org.

This article was written on special assignment for Encore Spotlight through the TeenTix Press Corps, a program that promotes critical thinking, communication and information literacy through criticism and journalism practice for teens. TeenTix is a youth empowerment and arts access nonprofit. 

Angel Blue From Seattle Opera’s Canceled ‘La bohème’ Will Sing Virtually Instead

Before the cancellation of La bohème at Seattle Opera, originally scheduled for May 2–19, we had the opportunity to interview soprano Angel Blue in anticipation of her performance as Mimì. Unfortunately, due to COVID-19 and subsequent stay-at-home orders, Seattle audiences will not be able to see the opera singer perform in this beloved role. However, we are happy to share that Angel Blue will be performing in a special virtual event, “Songs of Summer,” hosted by Seattle Opera on May 28. More information on this event can be found at the end of the interview.  

When I asked Angel Blue what it was like to fall in love with music for the first time, she shared a memory of being four years old at a concert version of Puccini’s Turandot.

“It was just spectacular,” Blue said. “Just listening to the orchestra—it was so loud. And it moved me in some way. It made me really happy. And I just remember being so fixed on the woman who was standing in the spotlight. And I didn’t know that was Turandot. I didn’t know that what she was singing was ‘In questa reggia,’ one of the most famous soprano arias. I just knew that it moved me. And that’s when I fell in love with opera.”

In February, I had the immense pleasure of speaking with Blue while she was in New York singing the role of Bess in Porgy and Bess at the Metropolitan Opera. Between helping her stepson make Valentine’s Day cards and enjoying her night off, we spoke about her upcoming role as Mimì in La bohème, her love of Seattle Opera audiences, the importance of sharing music with young people, and so much more.

Danielle Mohlman: When did you first encounter La bohème? How did this opera first come into your life?

Angel Blue: It’s kind of funny because even though my first encounter with opera was when I was four years old, I didn’t become familiar with La bohème until I was about 22 years old. And it was because I was given an aria to learn in school—“Donde lieta usci,” which Mimì sings in Act III. And I’ll be totally honest, I just wasn’t very interested in the story. I was more interested in just that aria because I was trying to get a grade.

Two years later, I was cast as Musetta at the LA Opera and that’s when I first really started to pay attention to the story. And the opera just really drew me in. I worked really hard to learn Musetta and it was very difficult for me to learn music at the time because my father had just passed away. It was my first professional stage, but it was also right after my father passed away. It has a very special place in my heart, not so much because of the story.

But it’s a personal connection.



And La bohème has been around for over 100 years. What is it that draws 2020 audiences in?

It’s the story. I have a friend who’s an actress and she told me that by the time we’re two years old, we’ve experienced every emotion possible. As a child, you experience your parents leaving—maybe leaving you with a babysitter. So in that respect, we experience what it feels like to have a bit of loss. And then, of course, as a child you love your parents and they are your best friends. They are your world. And I think La bohème has every aspect of humanity in it. And because of that, I think people relate to the story regardless. It starts out as joy and happiness. And then as the story progresses, you find there’s jealousy and all of these different emotions. I think that as long as humankind is on Earth, we will always relate to La bohème because we’ll always know what it feels like to fall in love—hopefully, anyway. And hopefully those loves that we have aren’t lost in death. Even though that, of course, is inevitable.

But we all experience loss on some level or another.

Yeah. And there’s also a lot of pranking that goes on with the guys in this opera—that sort of youthfulness. Everybody at some point will experience that.

Oh, for sure. You’ve performed at Seattle Opera several times over the course of your career. What keeps you coming back?

Definitely the people. I don’t think the audience realizes that they have so much to do with an artist wanting to be there. When I do get to go back, I see a lot of the same faces. It’s like that show Cheers. “Sometimes you want to go where everybody knows your name and they’re always glad you came.” And that’s kind of how I feel about Seattle because people do know my name. I can be in the Starbucks down the street from the rehearsal space and see somebody that saw La traviata three or four years ago and they say, “Oh, we’re happy to have you back.” It’s really nice to feel welcomed.


You’ll be performing in Seattle Opera’s first student matinee, which is really exciting. Does performing for young people have a different energy than performing for a more traditional audience?

It does. What I love about students is they’re uninhibited and much more open to the story. It’s the difference between watching college football and the NFL. Not to say that the NFL isn’t as exciting, because it absolutely is. It’s just that with college football, you can feel the players are really there because they love the game. They find so much joy in it. Whereas the guys in the NFL, they love the game, but it’s also their job.

When younger people come to watch opera, they’re not afraid to clap even if it’s a moment where you’re “not supposed to” clap. There’s no book that says “in opera you shouldn’t clap here.” But you know, opera people are very traditional and they want to have things a certain way. But I like the fact that students are very vocal about how they feel in a certain scene or about a certain character. They’re just more open to whatever the show is going to be.

This idea of “you sit like this” and “you clap here”—I feel like that can be intimidating for audiences who are new to opera.

I’ll be totally honest with you: it’s intimidating for me. I usually don’t go to the opera unless it’s something I really want to see or I have a friend who’s singing. And sometimes I won’t go because I’ll think I have to look a certain way. What I’ve recently started doing, especially now that I’m married, is my husband and I will go and it’ll be our date night.

We bought the same tickets as the person sitting next to us wearing Harry Winston jewels and I have as much a right to be here as that person does. And I’m not saying that people should be able to come to the opera in flip flops and board shorts. But there is something very appealing about come just as you are.

I love that. Before I let you go, what are you most looking forward to seeing while you’re in Seattle this time around?

I’m really interested in seeing the memorial to Chris Cornell because I’m a huge Soundgarden fan. That’s my all-time favorite band. I was hoping at one point in my life I would have the opportunity to shake his hand because he was an amazing singer. So seeing the memorial is high on my list of things to do.

Angel Blue will perform in Seattle Opera’s “Songs of Summer” recital with Seattle Opera Coach/Accompanist Jay Rozendaal. She will perform selections by Rachmaninov, Heggie, Charpentier and Verdi, as well as African American spirituals. You can view the recital on Seattle Opera’s website, from May 28 at 7 p.m. through June 11.  

Danielle Mohlman is a Seattle-based playwright and arts journalist. She’s a frequent contributor to Encore, where she’s written about everything from the intersection of sports and theatre to the landscape of sensory-friendly performances. Danielle’s work can also be found in American Theatre, The Dramatist and on the Quirk Books blog. 

Justin Huertas Creates a Magical Musical in a Familiar Setting With ‘Lydia and the Troll’ at Seattle Rep

When I called up musical theatre writer Justin Huertas to talk about his latest musical Lydia and the Troll, which was scheduled to receive its world premiere at Seattle Rep this month, I was curious to know how he describes the show—outside the world of marketing blurbs and elevator pitches.

“I feel like I haven’t really settled on the exact thing I want to say every time,” Huertas said. “So this is a great question because it’s going to be fun and spontaneous. Let’s see!”

What he settled on is this: Lydia and the Troll is a new musical about a singer-songwriter named Lydia who lives in Fremont, Seattle. She’s in a really exciting place in her career—on the verge of becoming the successful recording artist she’s always dreamed of. But she’s blocked, both in her writing and by the toxic and codependent relationship she’s in with her boyfriend. And in the midst of all of this, she meets a kind stranger who offers her a chance to cross over—into success and away from this relationship.

And because it’s a Justin Huertas musical, there’s a signature dash of Pacific Northwest magic.

[Editor’s Note: This interview took place in February, before Lydia was canceled due to COVID-19. Justin Huertas will be hosting a virtual event on May 13 in celebration of this musical. More information can be found at the end of the interview.]

Justin Huertas in rehearsal. PHOTO BY ANGLEA NICKERSON

Danielle Mohlman: A lot of your work is grounded in Pacific Northwest legend and what it means to be from Seattle. I’d love to talk about how place inspires your work.

Justin Huertas: As a patron of the arts and consumer of all kinds of media—in the movie theatre, on TV, and on my laptop—I get to see so many different kinds of stories. But I’m always so frustrated about the fact that I never see stories that are set in Seattle. I’m from here. I grew up here, and I think this place is magical. The fact that we even have a giant statue of a troll under a bridge collecting a life-size Volkswagen Beetle—I think that’s super magical. I’m someone who grew up on superheroes and comic books and fantasy/sci-fi stories. And I just want to create those kinds of stories for Seattle because I think we deserve it. When people think of Seattle, they think of Starbucks and Amazon.

And they think of rain and, you know, the stereotypical things.

Yes, yes. Yep.

And I feel like I do see TV shows that try to set themselves in Seattle and then you see palm trees in the background and you’re like, “Oh, they didn’t even shoot it here.” It’s so frustrating.

Oh, absolutely. I was really excited about the film Chronicle with Michael B. Jordan. It was a found footage kind of superhero movie where these teenagers gained superpowers. And I was so excited about it because I saw the trailer and there was the Space Needle in the background and there’s shipping yards and I was like, “Oh, this is going to really feel like Seattle.” And then straight up the first thing in the movie is the two main characters carpooling together to go to school. And they pass a sign that says “Entering King County.” And I’m thinking, “You drive across county lines to go to high school? This is ridiculous.” And that’s the moment they lost me.

You’re like, “That’s not how the school system works here.”

Yeah. I mean, I applaud the effort. Thank you for trying things, for putting the Space Needle in your movie. But I want real Seattle. That’s why I’m so eager to put all kinds of Seattle landmarks in my shows.

Sarah Russell and Kirsten DeLohr Helland in rehearsal. PHOTO BY ANGELA NICKERSON

I know you’ve been pretty open on social media about the fact that Lydia and the Troll was supposed to be in the 2018-19 season at Seattle Rep, but was delayed to keep the team together. Can you talk more about the value of that extra time—and the value of being able to continue to work as a team with your director and co-creator Ameenah Kaplan?

Yeah, definitely. At the tail end of our first workshop, Ameenah was offered the position of resident director on The Lion King national tour. And our hands were tied, she had to take that job. But Ameenah didn’t want to leave our project behind. What we were making started off as this kind of bare bones story about transformation and this singer-songwriter who’s trying to find her inner voice. And in this particular workshop, I had cast my friend Sarah Russell, who is a Black woman. And over the course of that workshop, Ameenah, who is also a Black woman, pulled me aside and said, “You’re writing this story for anyone and you’re having this amazing actress play this character. But what happens when you write specifically for a Black actress to play this role?”

And through that encouragement and collaboration, the story took a completely different turn and became about Lydia understanding herself not only as a singer-songwriter, but as a Black American in the music industry, in this interracial relationship that she’s in. And Ameenah is credited as my co-creator as well as my director because so much of what the story became is because of her.

Kirsten deLohr Helland William A. Williams and Justin Huertas in ‘Lizard Boy.’ PHOTO BY ALAN ALABASTRO

What is the driving force behind your writing? What motivates you to work on—or daydream about—your musicals every day?

For a while, I thought I was writing for my inner child. I’m looking at my own bookshelf right now and there’s Guardians of the Galaxy, Howl’s Moving Castle, X-Men and Steven Universe, all on this shelf. And for a while, I wanted to create all the superhero stories I wish I had growing up—stories about people of color, queer people, Filipino people. The Last World Octopus Wrestling Champion was a huge thing for me because I got to write a Filipino single mother. My own mother was a single mom for a little while. And that was really important to me, to normalize all the things that I never get to see in any kind of media or on stage. Hearing Tagalog on stage—hearing a Filipino mom ask, “Did you eat?”—already that’s enough for me. There are so many things about my own identity that I feel could stand to be way more normalized. Which is why I’m excited that my first couple of musicals had queer relationships in them.

I want to write stories that young people can connect with. We can all, in some way, identify with people of different cultures—or people of different sexualities and genders—and be able to find the universality in those things while still really respecting and loving the specificity. If it’s a Filipino mother constantly feeding her daughter spam and eggs, that might not be something that everyone can identify with. But I’m sure we can identify with a parent or guardian who is that enthusiastic about feeding their kids. I’m excited about putting these complex identities on stage—and putting them in hero positions for young people to see.

Join Justin Huertas here or on Seattle Rep’s YouTube channel as he shares songs, stories, and more on what would have been the opening night of Lydia and the Troll. Watch the full concert on May 13 at 5 p.m. PDT.

Danielle Mohlman is a Seattle-based playwright and arts journalist. She’s a frequent contributor to Encore, where she’s written about everything from the intersection of sports and theatre to the landscape of sensory-friendly performances. Danielle’s work can also be found in American Theatre, The Dramatist and on the Quirk Books blog. 

Awoye Timpo Challenges Standards of Beauty With ‘School Girls’

It’s hard not to think about The Plastics when you read the full title of Jocelyn Bioh’s bitingly funny School Girls; Or, The African Mean Girls Play. It sets the tone immediately, both a joke and a visceral reaction. So, when I called director Awoye Timpo, I was curious to get her take on the unusually familiar title.

“I haven’t seen that movie in a number of years,” Timpo said, “but it feels emblematic of high school in America in a really tragic and hilarious way. At the end of the day, that’s the beauty of School Girls as well. At this high school in the mountains of Ghana, these girls are finding their own place. It’s that very human desire to figure out where you fit and figure out what the hierarchy of the environment is.”

Before Timpo flew out to Berkeley to start rehearsals, we talked about pageants, standards of beauty, and why School Girls feels like an artistic family.

[Editor’s note: We are choosing to publish this Dialogue, even after the production’s run has been canceled due to COVID-19, because we would like to share the work and creativity that the artists, creative team and staff of Berkeley Repertory Theatre have put into this production. We’d also like to encourage readers to purchase a ticket to access a live performance of the show through the BroadwayHD streaming platform. Tickets must be purchased by March 20 at 5 p.m. Purchase tickets here.] 

Danielle Mohlman: How did School Girls come into your life? What drew you to the play initially?

Awoye Timpo: I’ve known Jocelyn [Bioh] for a number of years and had been following the progress of another play she’s been writing called Nollywood Dreams. And I knew of Jocelyn because we’re both first-generation artists in New York—our parents are from Ghana—so we’ve always been kind of connected. So, my first connection with School Girls was the greatness of Jocelyn. It’s so rare to see someone who’s writing comedies for the theatre, but the fact that this is a play that takes place in the country where our parents are from—it’s just so exciting. It’s been amazing to follow the progress of the play over the years.

What are you most looking forward to about bringing this play to Berkeley Rep?

Jocelyn is an artist that Johanna [Pfaelzer] has been invested in for quite a bit of time. So it was really exciting that in her first season as artistic director, she put this play in there. Because the two of them have such a beautiful history together. And I also worked at New York Stage and Film on another play when Johanna was there. This is my first time working at Berkeley Rep, so it feels very new, but it also feels very familiar because we get to do it with artistic family, which is great.

And in terms of the play itself, the play is dealing with issues of identity, it’s dealing with issues of hierarchy. It’s dealing with issues of “Who is the person that we all want to be in the world?” And I feel like that’s a very pressing question for this moment, as we’re in the midst of a robust election season and really trying to figure out what’s the way forward, beyond the moment we can see. This play is set in a cafeteria in a high school, about young women who are trying to figure out “What’s my place in the world? Where do I fit? What’s my purpose here? How do I achieve all the things that I want to achieve? And what are the things standing in the way of my achievement?” It feels like a very pressing theme for our moment and time.

Cast of Berkeley Rep’s ‘School Girls.’ PHOTO BY KEVIN BERNE

And I think the beauty of what Jocelyn has constructed is to take some quite large sociological issues and put them in a comedy. She’s also celebrating the life of these young women. She’s celebrating the joyousness and absurdities of our existence and the way we go about chasing the things that we desire. It’s so brilliantly constructed and so gorgeously takes the audience on a beautiful ride.

I’m so glad you mentioned the cafeteria because when I think about the movie Mean Girls, the first thing that comes to mind is the lunch tables. And all the categories.

Oh my gosh. Totally. It’s like a microcosm of a society, especially in a boarding school where people are with each other for really extended periods of time. There’s always gonna be the outgoing one, there’s always going to be the shy one. This play is also dealing with the standard of beauty and how young women are trying to define themselves according to what the standard is. The complexity of that is present here in America inside of our school systems, given the images that we all see on screen and what we imagine different standards of beauty to be.

This play takes place in the 1980s. If I think back to the representation, especially of Black women on screen and in magazines, it was quite limited outside of our own publications. The standard of beauty that has kind of infiltrated everybody’s mind since 1619 in America is very heavily weighted against us. And these young women on another continent, in another country have their own battles that echo that same conversation that we have here on a daily basis.

Cast of ‘School Girls.’ PHOTO BY KEVIN BERNE

There’s so much about beauty pageants in this play. Did you have any particular feelings about beauty pageants before diving into this play?

I think that there’s something interesting in learning about people and learning about the things that excite them—and then learning about how we learn and aspire to different things in the world. For me, growing up, my relationship with beauty pageants was kind of minimal. It was never something that I would aspire to, but I certainly think it’s a big image that young girls see in terms of what is the standard of beauty and what are the different ways that we are all represented by those people on that stage. My feelings haven’t changed, but I would love to revisit that question as we continue to get deeper into our rehearsal process.

Is there a particular moment or relationship you’re looking forward to exploring in rehearsal? 

You know what’s so great? Jocelyn has crafted so many different kinds of characters in this play. I’m excited about how every single one of those relationships plays up against one another. There are at least five different relationships between just the girls themselves. And then there’s the relationship between the girls and the headmaster. There’s the relationship between the headmaster and the former student who’s running the pageant search this year. It almost feels [like] lines that connect constellations. I’m really excited about his community of women and the fact that there’s both a younger generation community and an older generation community. Looking at how all of these people influence each other in different moments, and how each person gets to grow and change over the course of the play. It’s just so exciting and fascinating.

School Girls; Or, The African Mean Girls Playwas scheduled to run March 19 to May 3 at Berkeley Repertory Theatre before being canceled due to COVID-19 restrictions. Tickets are available online to stream a recording of the live performance. Purchase by March 20 at 5 p.m.

Danielle Mohlman is a Seattle-based playwright and arts journalist. She’s a frequent contributor to Encore, where she’s written about everything from the intersection of sports and theatre to the landscape of sensory-friendly performances. Danielle’s work can also be found in American Theatre, The Dramatist and on the Quirk Books blog.

Keith Randolph Smith Returns to His Favorite City With ‘Jitney’

When actor Keith Randolph Smith got on the phone to talk to me about his upcoming performance in Jitney at Seattle Rep, the first thing he wanted to talk about was how much he loves Seattle.

“I’m really excited to get there,” Smith said. “It’s one of my favorite cities in this country.”

The day we spoke also happened to be the day before Smith left New York for the Jitney tour. He was gracious enough to take time out of an errand-filled afternoon to talk about his love of August Wilson, making history on Broadway, and what it means to perform Jitney at Seattle Rep twice—nearly 20 years apart.

Danielle Mohlman: August Wilson is the first playwright whose work I truly fell in love with. I remember reading Gem of the Ocean in college and that was it for me.

Keith Randolph Smith: I love that play too.

Actor Keith Randolph Smith. COURTESY OF THE ARTIST

Oh my god. It’s so good! Do you have a favorite August Wilson play?

Oh man, it’s so hard. Like you, I loved Gem of the Ocean. It’s such a spiritual journey—and a beautiful journey of self-realization and discovery. But I also love Jitney, which I’m working on now. I usually say whichever one I’m working on at the moment is my favorite. But they all have a special place in my heart.

Jitney deals with community. It deals with a time where I was actually alive—in 1977—versus, say, Gem of the Ocean which is set in 1904. But I was actually alive and conscious in 1977. And so, I relate to the time period. Seventies music, 70s fashion, what was going on in the world. It reminds me of people I’ve met in my journey of life along the way, whether they’re relatives or not. I’ve had so many people come up to me after Jitney and go “You remind me of my uncle!” And the people who tell me this are not African American. They relate to the characters and how they’re dealing with the situations they’re in. It’s really a beautiful experience.

It’s one of the few August Wilson plays I’ve never seen.

Man, I can’t wait for you to see it! You sit there and go, “How can he make all of these different people out of nowhere?” And we remember them and we care about them and we get mad at them. It’s like you actually get to know them by the end of the play. What a masterful job he did.

I didn’t even realize—until this week—that until the Manhattan Theatre Club production in 2017, Jitney had never been on Broadway. Did it feel like a historic moment when you were working on it?

Philosophically speaking, when history is being made, it definitely feels historic. But you also have a feeling about whether what you’re doing fulfills some sort of creative urge in you. We knew that it was the last of his 10 plays to be on Broadway, so we were very aware of that. But it wasn’t something that we discussed all the time. We just went about our work like artists practicing our craft.

Cast of 'Jitney' with Keith Randolph Smith second from right in Manhattan Theatre Club production.
Cast of ‘Jitney’ with Keith Randolph Smith second from right in Manhattan Theatre Club production. PHOTO BY JOAN MARCUS

Yeah. Focusing on the present moment instead of what it means.

Yeah. And that’s only looking back at Broadway in hindsight. But that information doesn’t necessarily feed the creative process. What feeds the creative process are verbs, actions.

What were some verbs that were fueling that experience for you?

Oh, to be honest, to be open, to be authentic, to find the truth, to be present, to listen, to go after what it is your character needs as though it was life and death. What makes something imminently watchable is when we see a character going after what she wants in a very determined way. She needs something, and so we can get on board with that. And where we get bored is when a character doesn’t need anything.

Yeah, that drive—that urgency—is so important. Because it dictates why we’re here watching this story being told.

True. It engages you. It pulls you in. It welcomes you. And it can make you upset and angry and frustrated. You go through some emotions, but you’re engaged.

I feel like when I get angry in a theatre, at a character, that’s a success of the production, of the playwright, of the actor. You know, that I’m so emotionally invested that I feel anger for someone that isn’t real.

Yes, ma’am. Yes, ma’am. How many times have I seen shows where it’s just “I don’t like you! Why are you like that? Leave her alone!” And I have to say “Keith, you know that’s a fictional character in a make-believe situation.” They pulled me into their lives and their stories and I care about them.    

Keith Randolph Smith (left) in Seattle Rep’s 2002 production of 'Jitney.'
Keith Randolph Smith (left) in Seattle Rep’s 2002 production of ‘Jitney.’ PHOTO BY CHRIS BENNION

I’d love to talk to you about your character Doub. How did you prepare for this role? What draws you to him?

At the very beginning, I listened to a lot of music: Curtis Mayfield, Al Green, Marvin Gaye. This is music I grew up on; I graduated high school in 1974. I grew up on funk and Sly and the Family Stone and Chicago and The Doobie Brothers, and War and Power. And I also did three years in the Army. My character is a Korean War vet. I wasn’t old enough to be in the Korean War and I wasn’t old enough to be in the Vietnam War. But there’s that aspect of the military that affects a person and how they see the world.

I came to Seattle Rep to do Jitney in 2002. I was playing Booster, who is the son that gets out of prison. And almost 20 years later, I’m playing a different role.

What is that like to revisit the same play in a completely different character’s body?

The biggest difference that I noticed was when I was Booster, the jitney station was a place I hadn’t been to. You know the first time you go to a new school—if your family moves. That first time you walk in the building, it’s kind of like “Okay, this layout is different. They don’t have enough light in the hallways.” Or when you go to somebody’s church and you notice they’re all a little different. You feel a little outside. It’s welcoming, but you’re still a little outside. But as Doub, who works at the jitney station, I feel very at home in that space.

What does Seattle mean to you? What are you most looking forward to about this experience?

The fresh air! The air is so clean in Seattle. The fish market! The Sound! Going to the movies downtown! We’re coming in March, so football season will be over, but I would love to see the Seahawks play a game. I always try to see sports whenever I go to a new city. I have friends I’m looking forward to seeing—Cheryl West, Tim Bond, Valerie Curtis Newton. I’ve always said if I retire, I could move to Seattle. I’ve always loved that city.

August Wilson’s Jitney runs at Seattle Rep from February 28 through March 29 at the Bagley Wright Theater. Tickets are available online or at 206.443.2222.

Danielle Mohlman is a Seattle-based playwright and arts journalist. She’s a frequent contributor to Encore, where she’s written about everything from the intersection of sports and theatre to the landscape of sensory-friendly performances. Danielle’s work can also be found in American Theatre, The Dramatist and on the Quirk Books blog.

Rachel Atkins Makes ‘The Turn of the Screw’ Her Own at Book-It

Rachel Atkins has a long and wonderful history with Book-It Repertory Theatre. She spent several years as a teaching artist in the education department before writing her first play for the company, an adaptation of Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier, in 2005. Fifteen years later, almost to the day, Atkins will open The Turn of the Screw, an adaptation she’s been periodically pitching Book-It for years.

The Turn of the Screw has been on my list for a long time,” Atkins said. “And I think it’s been on their list for a long time too. I’m certain I’m not the only adaptor to suggest that The Turn of the Screw would be a good Book-It style production. And things just fell into place.”

After simmering on the idea for several years, Atkins has found a way to make this Henry James novel wholly her own.

Playwright Rachel Atkins. COURTESY OF THE ARTIST

Danielle Mohlman: What drew you to The Turn of the Screw initially?

Rachel Atkins: There is something about this story where you read the whole thing and you never really know what’s going on. And everybody thinks something different is happening. I’ve talked to Carol Roscoe, who’s directing it, about how much her experience with this book has changed. She remembered what she thought was the truth of the story when she first read it in high school. And then reading it years later as an adult, she now thinks something completely different. And I think there’s just something really interesting about a story that leaves so much open for readers and audiences.

Even in the structure of his narrative—the frequency with which he uses pronouns but doesn’t identify who he’s talking about. What “he” does he mean in this sentence?  It could be anybody. And the challenge is: how do you take that and turn it into a play that people are still going to be able to understand and follow, but still leave some essence of that mystery?

And having to make some decisions, I’m sure, about who those pronouns belong to.

Yeah, absolutely.

We’re speaking before the start of rehearsals. Is there a moment or character relationship that you’re looking forward to exploring in rehearsals?

There is, but I sort of don’t want to tell you because it’s part of the mystery of the story.

You don’t have to tell me.

I will say that one of the things that I had a lot of fun with was bringing in some other materials into the story. I mean, it’s a novella. It’s short. This may be the shortest mainstage Book-It production ever, just because it’s really tightened up. One thing I did was pull in other materials of songs and poems and things that the children would be reading or reciting or studying. I’ve tried to use that stuff to draw out more of the mysterious, weird creepiness of the story and what might be happening with these children.

Shannon Lee Clair and Amy Driesler in ‘The Turn of the Screw.’ PHOTO BY AARON WHEETMAN

That sounds so incredible and creepy.

I hope so. That’s what I’m going for.

Because some of those nursery rhymes from back in the day…

I got some creepy stuff in there, so we’ll see.

What excites you about working with this cast of Pacific Northwest actors?

I’m really excited that we’re telling this story with an all-female cast. That’s something that Carol [and I] are both really excited about. I mean, we’re really excited about this cast. We’ve got this really strong group of actors. And the idea of this particular story—about a young woman who takes her first job as a governess and is sent way out to this isolated situation, way beyond her depth. And the idea of telling that story only through female bodies feels really right.

I love that. And I loved seeing that echoed in the reading of This is Not (Y)Our History at Seattle Public Theater, where you had an all-female and non-binary cast playing both male and female roles.

Yeah, and for a totally different reason. With that piece, which is about the suffrage movement, it just feels like a women’s story. And I felt really strongly that not only would there be no men on stage, there would be no men involved in the production.

Of course, the women’s suffrage movement is a big topic right now as we approach the centennial. And I keep hearing about other projects that people are working on across the country. And every time, it’s either that men are writing it or men are in major artistic positions and I’m like “Come on, people. Let them tell their story!”

The Turn of the Screw runs February 12 to March 8 at Book-It Repertory Theatre. Tickets can be purchased online or by calling 206.216.0833.

Danielle Mohlman is a Seattle-based playwright and arts journalist. She’s a frequent contributor to Encore, where she’s written about everything from the intersection of sports and theatre to the landscape of sensory-friendly performances. Danielle’s work can also be found in American Theatre, The Dramatist and on the Quirk Books blog.

Olaf in Broadway’s Touring ‘Frozen’ Will Melt Your Heart

Upon its debut in 2013, Disney’s Frozen almost instantly became part of the zeitgeist of the 2010s. A cultural phenomenon in its own right, it is no wonder that Frozen has transcended the realm of film and, with music and lyrics by Kristen Anderson-Lopez and Robert Lopez and book by Jennifer Lee, has metamorphosed into a Tony-nominated Broadway musical.

I am of the mind, however, that the name Frozen is an oxymoron; the show is filled with warmth. This oxymoron is perhaps most embodied by Olaf, a charming snowman with a distinct affinity for summer. I had the opportunity to interview F. Michael Haynie, who brings the iconic snowman to life in the Broadway touring production at The Paramount Theatre

Eleanor Cenname: When you portray Olaf, I noticed you use a puppet. Did using the puppet change the way you approached your performance?

F. Michael Haynie: Yes and no. Olaf the “character” has nothing to do with the puppet, so the approach isn’t that much different than normal character work. That being said, the performance of the character is SO much of the incredibly designed Michael Curry puppet. I had amazing teachers, including my puppet guru Lorenzo Pisoni, and amazing cast mates and a creative team that was patient with me while I learned the basics. And special shout out to my physical therapist Taylor Rossi!

Actor F. Michael Haynie. COURTESY OF THE ARTIST

Can you describe the audition process for Olaf?

It was great. This creative team was so generous and open to my interpretation of Olaf that it made it challenging and exciting all at the same time. Some of it was with the puppet, but mostly they were looking for an actor. I’m very honored that I was asked to be a part of this production.

What is the most challenging part of being in the production for you?

The physical demand of this show is remarkably unique. So there are some places you hurt that you didn’t know could hurt. Again, shoutout to my incredible physical therapist for helping me maintain my health while also learning to be more in control of my body. Puppeteering is such a new physical language for me and it is challenging and thrilling.

In what ways do you feel you have influenced or brought a unique portrayal of Olaf to stage?

Olaf is, at his core, two things: Jennifer Lee (director and writer of Frozen and Frozen II) and Josh Gad (the voice actor for Olaf). That’s his DNA. The stage production opened and added a new strain of DNA to that: Greg Hildreth (original Broadway cast Olaf). When I got the opportunity to originate this version of the show I’d like to think that I added to that DNA again. So, to paraphrase a line from our show, he’s a little bit of “them” and a little bit of “me.” And since I base him on Caroline Innerbichler and Caroline Bowman (our Anna and Elsa) he is about as unique as they come.

This show has been impactful for a lot of young people, how do you handle the responsibility of portraying such a beloved character?

It’s terrifying. I’m only kind of kidding. Olaf gets entrance applause because he’s an icon. I’m not. But I hope that by the end of the show audiences are happy they met my take on that little scamp.

F. Michael Haynie in Frozen North American Tour.
F. Michael Haynie in Frozen North American Tour. PHOTO BY DEEN VAN MEER

How do you think the transition from screen to stage has impacted the production?

The bones of the story that the entire Frozen film team created are still there. But there is a tone that can be achieved on stage with real-life people (and real-life puppets) that can reach audiences in a different way. As a huge fan of many animated mediums, I feel that live theatre is a very separate but equally excited storytelling realm. Even if you’ve seen Frozen before, there is nothing like seeing it live on the stage.

Do you have any advice for young people who might want to pursue musical theatre?

Consume as much art as you can. There are so many media platforms nowadays that you can watch anything all the time. See theatre in your hometown. See tours. See movies. Watch TV shows. Read books. Play video games. Listen to music. Watch the news. Study ANYTHING. The arts need rich minds who are ready to contribute to the world right now. 

Frozen is now playing at Broadway at The Paramount through March 1. Tickets are available online or at 206.682.1415.

Eleanor Cenname is a 10th grader at The Downtown School. A logophile at heart, Eleanor is also a self-proclaimed theatre nerd who merges her love of language and theatre into a passion for arts criticism and arts writing. Eleanor also enjoys writing science fiction and won MoPop’s 2019 Science Fiction Short Story Competition. In her spare time, Eleanor competes in triathlons, listens to podcasts, and drinks copious amounts of tea.

This article was written on special assignment for Encore Spotlight through the TeenTix Press Corps, a program that promotes critical thinking, communication and information literacy through criticism and journalism practice for teens. TeenTix is a youth empowerment and arts access nonprofit. 

Eric Ting Digs Into the Complexity of Trauma With ‘Gloria’ at A.C.T.

When director Eric Ting and I hopped on the phone during his lunch break, we immediately started comparing Branden Jacob-Jenkins trivia. I was coming into the conversation as a fan, watching his work from the audience as I moved from city to city, fortunate to find Jacob-Jenkins’s work in each new hometown. And while I’m a fan, Ting is a friend and a close collaborator.

“Basically, I’m always going to say yes to an opportunity to direct his plays,” Ting said. “He’s an extraordinary writer. And for me personally, any time I have an opportunity to work on his plays, I come out of it a better person.”

Ting spent years developing Appropriate with Jacob-Jenkins, going on to direct that play at the Mark Taper Forum in 2015 and An Octoroon at Berkeley Repertory Theatre in 2017. Our conversation was in the middle of the Gloria rehearsal process, a time of great discovery for Ting and the cast.

Director of ‘Gloria’ Eric Ting. PHOTO COURTESY OF THE ARTIST

Danielle Mohlman: What excites you about working on Gloria now? What makes it right for these 2020 Bay Area audiences?

Eric Ting: What this play offers is a kind of examination of the sort of depersonalization of our society—the conditions with which we dehumanize each other and disconnect from each other and miss each other’s pain. And [Jacob-Jenkins] contains it all in an office comedy. It’s largely—on its surface—a comedy about office culture. But he’s just an incisive observer of human behavior. And so the joy and pleasure of working on a play like this is identifying all of the very complex, contradictory subtext that unfolds in these plays. The conditions of living today are conditions that are often contradictions of itself. And I think that’s something you find in all of Branden’s characters and plays. These are people that are living with intense anguish and pain and also intense love.

Yeah, and one thing that I’m fascinated by is the fact that this is at its core satire, but dealing with very real issues. And I’m not going to spoil what those real issues are. But how are you navigating that juxtaposition between the reality of tragedy and the satirical, comedic elements?

Can I ask you what you mean when you say “satire”? We were literally having this conversation in rehearsal the other day about that word. What is your definition?

I think that my definition is probably not the right definition.

No, no. I mean, neither is mine.

When I think of satire, I think of that biting reality that’s not necessarily laughing with you, but laughing at you. Which is probably not how Merriam-Webster would describe it.

No, no, that’s great.

Eric Ting and cast in rehearsals for 'Gloria' at A.C.T.
Eric Ting and cast in rehearsals for ‘Gloria’ at A.C.T. PHOTO BY BERYL BAKER

I think I’m also using that word because it’s being used in the marketing that American Conservatory Theater (A.C.T.) is putting out.

Totally. And there’s a big difference between marketers and directors.

And maybe we should be talking about that instead.

Well, this is an interesting play because that central trauma around which the play pivots. The social commentary really kicks in in the second half of the play because it’s so unexpected. And Branden is so smart and how he wrestles with it is through the eye of someone who has a deep understanding of why it happened. And that’s partly what makes it so funny, you know, is that what’s unfolding on stage is so familiar.

And even though there’s all sorts of layers of complexity in Gloria—it’s not just what does office culture include? It includes conversations around privilege and class. It includes conversations around generational differences. It includes conversations around aesthetic and who is deciding the value and worth of a thing.

We were talking the other day about this notion of the assistant editors. They’re these three people who spend all their days tearing things apart. And what does it mean to exist in a world where your primary action is surgical? Your whole thing is about the dissection of art and culture. For me, Gloria is a person who just wants to see good in the world and she keeps being confronted with these people who want to tear it apart.

On some level, one of the things that we keep reminding ourselves is this need to really come at these characters with immense compassion and generosity. We need to understand why they do what they do, and not simply leave them on stage as a symbol of a corrupt culture, or of a society in decline.

And here we are in the Bay Area—the tech capital of the world. And when we talk about the things that have the potential to contribute to the depersonalization and the dehumanization of our world, it’s not hard to look around and be confronted by those impulses, to disconnect from what you’re seeing, to disengage from it as a coping mechanism or survival instinct.

I want to talk a little about your role as artistic director at Cal Shakes if that’s okay.


Eric Ting, cast and creative team in rehearsals for 'Gloria' at A.C.T.
Eric Ting, cast and creative team in rehearsals for ‘Gloria’ at A.C.T. PHOTO BY BERYL BAKER

This is going to sound like a silly question, but when you Google your name and Cal Shakes, the first thing that comes up is the tree that was planted to commemorate your arrival in 2015. So I’m wondering: how is the tree doing?

The tree is good and healthy. It’s grown—it gets bigger every year. You know, just before I got here, the Bay Area was in the midst of a drought. And then I arrived and all of the sudden it started raining. Cal Shakes is a beautiful space. Part of what it’s known for is the vista of rolling golden hills in the backdrop, which we use as part of the visual experience of the plays. Every so often, we work with somebody who hasn’t been back to Cal Shakes in a while and they come and they’re like “What happened? The trees got so tall. Can you cut them down?” And we’re like, “We can’t. It’s not really our property.”

And plus, you want the trees to thrive!

Right, exactly! It was a really amazing moment. We have an extraordinary volunteer corps called Will’s Weeder’s and they come out every year at the beginning of the season to prepare the ground for the public. And they take care of the gardens around the theatre. It was a gesture of welcoming to plant that tree in my honor. And it’s definitely something that I think about. I’ll sit up there on the hill and read plays, or take phone calls there from time to time.

And it feels like it’s your tree.

I guess so. You’re the first person to ever ask me a question about that tree!

Well, I feel honored.

Revised on February 11, 2020: A previous version misnamed the organization “Will’s Weeder’s.” It was stated as “Will Leaders.”

Gloria will play at A.C.T.’s Strand Theater February 13–April 12. Tickets are available online or at 415.749.2228.

Danielle Mohlman is a Seattle-based playwright and arts journalist. She’s a frequent contributor to Encore, where she’s written about everything from the intersection of sports and theatre to the landscape of sensory-friendly performances. Danielle’s work can also be found in American Theatre, The Dramatist and on the Quirk Books blog.

Director Anne Kauffman Hopes to Open Up Conversation Around Death With ‘Wakey, Wakey’

When American Conservatory Theater Artistic Director Pam MacKinnon called Anne Kauffman to ask if she would direct Wakey, Wakey by Will Eno, she was thrilled. She not only had a long friendship and working relationship with MacKinnon, but also a deep desire to work on one of Eno’s plays. She describes herself as “a big fan” of his work—high praise from a director who regularly works with Amy Herzog, Jordan Harrison and The Bengsons.

“I was very, very interested in how this is like an anti-play,” Kauffman said. “Will Eno is sort of a non-cynical Samuel Beckett. He has a way of really putting a microscope up to humanity and looking at all of its flaws, but also its huge capacity for joy. And I think that this combination is crucial at this moment.”

We had the opportunity to talk right before the holidays, while Kauffman was at Berkeley Repertory Theatre directing Becky Nurse of Salem, Sarah Ruhl’s latest play. We covered everything from death and dying, to what it’s like to work with Tony Hale.

Danielle Mohlman: I don’t think it’s a spoiler to say that Wakey, Wakey deals pretty explicitly with death and what happens—or doesn’t happen—after we die. How do you tap into that as you prepare to go into rehearsals with this play?

Anne Kauffman: I’m middle-aged and I’ve dealt with the death of one parent. And the death of that parent had a significant impact on the choices I made in terms of work in the ensuing years. As my little sister said about losing my mom, “I feel like I’m forever changed.” And I’ll never be able to go back and look at the world in the same way. Not that it’s always sadness, but there’s a fundamental change. And I also think when you deal with sick parents—and you deal with death around you—that you start to realize that this country is very unwilling to look death in the eye. We sort of sweep it under the rug. And, in fact, it needs to be taken out and examined and celebrated, the way we celebrate birth in this country. So for me, Wakey, Wakey feels like a step in the direction of opening that conversation up.

Oh, for sure. And I don’t know if this is an explicit link in your work, but I fell in love with Hundred Days about a year ago and that play also deals with death and the fears surrounding it.

Yeah, and I feel like in both pieces we deal with the inevitability. The idea of resisting it or fearing it—there’s something about the inevitability of death that forces you to shift your perspective on it.

Actor Tony Hale who stars in ‘Wakey, Wakey’ at A.C.T. Photo by Cheshire Isaacs

You’ve said before that you’re really drawn to plays that mess around with language. Is that something you’ve latched onto with Wakey, Wakey as well?

Oh yeah. For sure. I think that Will Eno is one of the best language playwrights we have. And I think what’s so incredible about him is the mundanity of his poetry. He doesn’t put together words to aspire to something lyrical. He actually takes words and puts them together in certain chains to open up new meaning—like pedestrian discovery. His poetry has these instantaneous and ephemeral flights of beauty that land right back in the mundane pieces that he’s put together.

I don’t know how else to say it. It’s like this inspiration in the pedestrian. Or finding the profound in this certain combination of images that he puts together. And it makes me feel like “Oh. I can do this.” Not that I can write this, but that this duty is within my grasp. I own this duty too—and it’s made of me.

Oh, I love that. How did you come to the decision to cast Tony Hale? I imagine you don’t approach directing any differently when someone is a household name, but do you think at all about how fans of his work might be surprised by this play?

I think what’s so extraordinary about Tony is that he’s a Beckett clown for the 21st century. And it’s a perfect match because of that. The greatest comedians have a really deep understanding of pain and the profound. It feels completely and utterly matched. It seems extraordinary that Will [Eno] didn’t write it for him.

Tony Hale in ‘Wakey, Wakey’ at A.C.T. directed by Anne Kauffman. Photo by Kevin Berne

I don’t know Tony that well. We were able to meet up a few months ago in New York for breakfast. And I felt a real kinship, a real affinity with him. I feel like, you know, we’re of a certain age. I keep saying that, but Will is too, and there is something very profound about middle age. And I feel really connected to the way Tony talks about the play, the way Tony talks about his life. It feels like a conversation, rather than a making of a theatre piece. And that’s the thing I’m so looking forward to in terms of this one person show. 

To be honest, it’s not normally a thing I gravitate towards, but it does have an extraordinarily different feel because it’s basically you and the actor having a conversation with the playwright and with the themes. And then we bring that conversation in front of an audience. It’s very intimate.

I know your work takes you all over the country. What are you most looking forward to about being at A.C.T.?

I’m friends with Pam [MacKinnon] and I adore her—I think the world of her. And I’ve always loved A.C.T. I actually went there. In 1988, I was in their summer training congress, when I wanted to be an actor. So I’ve trained there, I went to undergrad at Stanford, and I have lots of friends and family in the area. This is really a homecoming of sorts. My mom is from San Francisco, my dad is from the peninsula. It just holds a lot of meaning. And I have a really strong connection to it, from my childhood through college. It really is a second home for me.

Wakey, Wakey by Will Eno runs January 23 to February 16 at American Conservatory Theater. Tickets can be purchased online or by calling 415.749.2228.

Danielle Mohlman is a Seattle-based playwright and arts journalist. She’s a frequent contributor to Encore, where she’s written about everything from the intersection of sports and theatre to the landscape of sensory-friendly performances. Danielle’s work can also be found in American Theatre, The Dramatist and on the Quirk Books blog.

Karen Lund Returns to ‘The Shop Around the Corner’ with ‘She Loves Me’ at Village Theatre

To say that Karen Lund is easy to talk to would be a gross understatement. Lund, who has served as associate artistic director of Taproot Theatre Company since 1993, is making her Village Theatre directorial debut this month with She Loves Me, and the joy she’s bringing to the pre-production process is contagious.

Within minutes, we’d talked about everything from the 1940 movie The Shop Around the Corner—which serves as the musical’s source material—to our shared love of Laura Benanti, who played Amalia when the musical was last on Broadway. “I love her so much,” Lund said, matching my energy for the 2016 Broadway cast album. “Have you seen her on [The Late Show with Stephen] Colbert?”

It’s clear that She Loves Me is a deeply personal story for Lund, one that’s been part of her life for over 20 years—from her first viewing of The Shop Around the Corner to You’ve Got Mail and beyond. And after directing three to four shows a year at Taproot Theatre for the last several seasons, Lund is ready to work away from her artistic home base.

“The thing is, I’ve been raising kids,” Lund said. “And I just haven’t wanted to be away from home that much—especially when they were younger. I’ve really had a lot of artistic fulfillment at Taproot, so I haven’t necessarily gone searching. But now’s the time.”

Karen Lund, director of ‘She Loves Me.’ Courtesy of Taproot Theatre Company

Danielle Mohlman: Why this musical now? What makes it right for 2020 audiences?

Karen Lund: I found myself sitting across from [Village Theatre artistic director] Jerry Dixon, talking about how they chose this season. And what he was really looking for was a season that would bring joy to his audience. He had a list of plays and he would rate them based on how joyful they were—and She Loves Me kept rising to the top. And I have to applaud him. Right now, I think we all need an antidote to some of the toxic stuff that we’re hearing in the news. These characters are very earnest and very simple. No one is trying to be the next best great this or that. Their idea of happiness is a great love. And a steady income and a family. It’s really simple for them.

And, of course, this takes place in a really turbulent time. It’s 1930s Europe where the Depression was as rough there as it was here. And to have a job and a steady income was difficult—so you valued it so much more. I think in a lot of ways the play asks us to value the simple things, like your connections with your family and your connections with your friends, and know that those have worth. And it’s so sweet and so simple. And yet it’s so difficult for us to do that right now.

And we see these characters in this sweet pocket, even though it might not feel like that on the inside, because World War II is going to be worse. And they just don’t know what will happen.

Right. But what we do know is they’re going to have each other. And it’s not just about the romantic relationships. It’s about this family of perfumery workers who go through a difficult time and actually become closer. The support they give each other to be better people is just wonderful.

Randy Scholz and Taryn Darr in 'She Loves Me.'
Randy Scholz and Taryn Darr in ‘She Loves Me.’ Photo by Tracy Martin

It’s way closer than coworkers. There are real, deep friendships there.

Yeah. You know they’re going to last. You know they’re going to support each other during the war. That’s how I see it, at least.

Is there a particular moment or song you’re excited to explore in rehearsals?

I’m really interested in the relationship between Georg and Amalia. They are really intellectual equals, which doesn’t typically happen in stories from that era. They read the same books, they have the same philosophy of life. They have razor-sharp wit. There’s a lot of sparring that happens between them and I’m really excited about creating those moments. I think their battles are going to be outstanding; they’re going to be super fun to watch.

Oh, that’s so exciting! I do want to pivot a bit and talk about arts administration—and your role as associate artistic director of Taproot Theatre. How does arts administration inform the way you direct?

Oh wow. You know what it is? I’m always very mindful of the audience. I have to be, because of my work as an arts administrator. But I also feel like it’s my pleasure to be. At Taproot, we’re in an ongoing conversation with our audience—about the world around us, about truth, about beauty, and about how one person can make an impact on the world. When I was offered the opportunity to direct She Loves Me, one of the first things I said was, “Tell me about your audience. Tell me what they’re looking for.”

And I want to be clear: I’m not talking about pandering to an audience. I’m talking about knowing them and meeting them where they are, so I know how best to challenge them. I have this theory that if you can make somebody laugh, you can actually tell them some pretty hard truths. So, I need to get you comfortable. You feel like you’re in your home, you’re laughing, your heart is open. And then I can tell you a hard truth that might change the way you think or the way you behave.

Eric Ankrim and Mark Emerson in ‘She Loves Me.’ Photo by Tracy Martin

One thing that I love about Taproot is that there’s consciously a dramaturg attached to each play, which feels like a rarity, especially in Seattle. Can you talk a little about the value of dramaturgy in Taproot’s artistry?

I just find dramaturgy to be so important to the work that we’re doing. I don’t care what the play is: dramaturgy can add so much to the depth and breadth of the actors’ work on stage. Any little thing that you learn can spark your creativity in ways that you couldn’t ever imagine. And it’s not just for the actors. Dramaturgy can inform props, the set, costume design. It helps me as a director. I always think, if I wasn’t a director, I might be a dramaturg. Because I love it so much.

She Loves Me runs January 16 to February 23 at the Francis J. Gaudette Theatre in Issaquah and from February 28 to March 22 at the Everett Performing Arts Center in Everett. Tickets are available online or by calling 425.257.8600.

Danielle Mohlman is a Seattle-based playwright and arts journalist. She’s a frequent contributor to Encore, where she’s written about everything from the intersection of sports and theatre to the landscape of sensory-friendly performances. Danielle’s work can also be found in American Theatre, The Dramatist and on the Quirk Books blog.